The Spitfire Grill

Music and book: James Valcq;
lyric and book: Fred Alley
Director: Kerry van der Griend
Musical director: Steven Greenfield
A production of Pacific Theatre

There’s a balm in Gilead

Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre was abuzz with anticipation on Friday, Sept. 21, opening night of the 2012/2013 season. The first offering this year is the musical The Spitfire Grill, a guest production by Midnight Theatre Collective. The Spitfire Grill is a quirky, light-hearted, yet poignant musical about how a young woman recently released from prison goes about starting over.

Set in a diner in the rural town of Gilead, Wis., the set gives the audience the sense of a back-country town. Though the kitchen props and diner furniture suggest a setting in the 1950s or ’60s, coffee cups with sleeves, references to the Vietnam War as many years prior, and certain fashions prove the play is set in the late 1980s or early ’90s. Staging was well-done, such that each element of the set was used and necessary.

The play opens with “Ring around the Moon” a beautiful song sung by main character Percy, played by Julie McIsaac. She sings about the past she’s leaving behind and the hope of things to come in a town called Gilead. She’s been dreaming about this place since finding a beautiful autumn picture of the town in a travel magazine in prison. I found myself hoping along with her that she could leave her past behind and become who she longed to be.She sings as she makes her way to Gilead where she first encounters the sheriff (her parole officer), a frustrated man named Joe Sutter, played by Steven Greenfield. Initially, he’s harsh with her, and attempts to dash her hopes and dreams for a new life in this town.In order to solve the problem of finding her a viable job and place to stay, the Sheriff leads her to The Spitfire Grill. The diner is run by Hannah Ferguson, an older, weathered woman with a sharp tongue and a bad hip, played by Barbara Pollard. She agrees to employ and house Percy – with the understanding Percy works hard and minds herself. I quickly recognized that underneath her crotchety exterior, Hannah is a woman with a story.The town is immediately suspicious of the “new girl,” a sentiment is embodied hilariously in the town gossip Effy Krayneck, played by Sarah May Redmond. The suspicion gives rise to the fast-paced song, “Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill.” During this scene, we meet two characters who hold intriguing secrets: Hannah’s nephew Caleb Thorpe, played by Damon Calderwood, and Caleb’s put-upon wife Shelby, played by Caitriona Murphy.

As the story unfolds, each character slowly reveals the secrets and fears that live within them. Friendships blossom, and love becomes a possibility; The Spitfire Grill ends with an overriding sense of hope for the characters. The play has a lovely balance of scenes that evoke laughter or a lump in the throat. Perhaps the most telling line is spoken by Percy to Hannah in a particularly vulnerable scene: “You suppose if a wound goes real deep, the healing can hurt almost as bad as what caused it?”One of the most intriguing parts of this particular performance is that the actors are also the musicians. Behind the scenes, musicians Stephen Bulat, Franki Lemon, and Shayna Jones play guitar, mandolin, cello, and percussion, lending a musical foundation; however, each actor also plays an instrument on stage. Pacific Theatre’s Gilead has a piano-playing sheriff, an accordion-playing gossip, a clarinet-playing nephew whose wife plays violin and guitar, and a word-less percussion-playing character played by Gordon Roberts. Julie McIsaac also plays the violin and plunks out a few notes on the piano as Percy. This was definitely one my favourite parts of the night.At the end of the musical, I found myself believing that redemption does happen in big and small ways for regular people who have made mistakes – big or small. As each character encounters what is truly inside, he or she has choices to make: keep going in the same direction? or allow revelation to take him or her to a new place of hope and possibility?

The Spitfire Grill is fantastic in many ways – a few flat notes here and there are forgivable. Characters on occasion use crude language. Overall; however, it’s a great play for teenagers and adults alike, and a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening. If The Spitfire Grill is any indication of what the 2012/2013 season at Pacific Theatre is going to be like, I would buy season tickets before it’s too late.

 —Laura Colley

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